Background: Anecdotal reports suggest that some residency application essays contain plagiarized content.
Objective: To determine the prevalence of plagiarism in a large cohort of residency application essays.
Design: Retrospective cohort study.
Setting: 4975 application essays submitted to residency programs at a single large academic medical center between 1 September 2005 and 22 March 2007.
Measurements: Specialized software was used to compare residency application essays with a database of Internet pages, published works, and previously submitted essays and the percentage of the submission matching another source was calculated. A match of more than 10% to an existing work was defined as evidence of plagiarism.
Results: Evidence of plagiarism was found in 5.2% (95% CI, 4.6% to 5.9%) of essays. The essays of non-U.S. citizens were more likely to demonstrate evidence of plagiarism. Other characteristics associated with the prevalence of plagiarism included medical school location outside the United States and Canada; previous residency or fellowship; lack of research experience, volunteer experience, or publications; a low United States Medical Licensing Examination Step 1 score; and non-membership in the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society.
Limitations: The software database is probably incomplete, the 10%-match threshold for defining plagiarism has not been statistically validated, and the study was confined to applicants to 1 institution. Evidence of matching content in an essay cannot be used to infer the applicant's intent and is not sensitive to variations in the cultural context of copying in some societies.
Conclusion: Evidence of plagiarism in residency application essays is more common in international applicants but was found in those by applicants to all specialty programs, from all medical school types, and even among applicants with significant academic honors.
Primary funding source: No external funding.